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'Così Fan Tutte' Completes LA Phil's Mozart Opera Cycle

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Over its past three seasons, the LA Philharmonic has undertaken the extraordinarily ambitious project of staging the trio of Italian operas composed by W.A. Mozart with libretti (scripts) by Lorenzo da Ponte in its home venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Conducted by the LA Phil's own star musical director Gustavo Dudamel and directed by Christopher Alden, each of the three productions in three years has been vividly memorable. Collectively, the undertaking has been an absolute triumph.

Producing operas, of course, is not what orchestras do, and the WDCH is not a theater space. For this series, though, three different design teams magically transported the concert hall's performance area into distinct ethereal realms unique to each year's production. In 2012 Frank Gehry's textural black and white "installations," with complementary costumes by Rodarte, framed the darkest-souled Don Giovanni we've ever seen (which we had a chance to contrast with LA Opera's production of the same work just a few months later). The Marriage of Figaro's complex romantic intrigues last year took place in a much warmer climate, provided by architect Jean Nouvel and couturier Azzedine Alaïa.

The bright white vortex devised by London-based architect Zaha Hadid as the setting for Così fan tutte--which concludes the Philharmonic's Mozart-Da Ponte project with two upcoming performances--is not as instantly striking as the two that preceded it, but once the singers appear and start wending their way around its steep curves, the apparent precariousness of their positions on the structure soon becomes obviously appropriate. For whether they know it or not, the characters in Così fan tutte ("All Women Are Like This") are playing a very dangerous game.

When LA Opera presented this opera in 2011, we raved that audiences could hardly hope to see a more perfectly definitive production of Così fan tutte than the production then running at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Now, a mere 2 1/2 years later, the new version on view just across First Street shines just about as brightly in a distinctly alternative mode: to see the difference, just compare the above image of the four romantic leads in their current Philharmonic appearance with the same group of characters in LA Opera's production. (Recognizing the opportunity we've had to see two contrasting productions of Così, both so perfectly realized, by the way, only shores up our contention last week that LA really is an underrated opera town.)

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Although no concrete time and place are specified, this Così fan tutte takes place among a group of one-percenter types at their leisure in some wealthy enclave with enough idle time on their hands to play around with extended social experiments (one might argue that this description fits the opera's original concept as well). Rodney Gilfrey's Don Alfonso seems to be animated by an unspoken malevolent agenda as he orchestrates the lovers' betrayal at the center of the story. The young men who play along with him (tenor Alek Shrader and baritone Philippe Sly) have no idea what they're getting into, while the ladies they intend to marry (Miah Persson and Roxana Constantinescu) really want to stay virtuous and true, but just can't resist the temptation trap laid before them. (It's hard to deny a misogynistic streak in Mozart and Da Ponte's 18th-century sexual politics.)

And even once all the deceptions have been cleared up and the tearful apologies offered, the hasty reconciliation between the couples that usually ensues in other productions seems tentative at best as the opera comes to an end in Alden's staging.

The cast of this Così fan tutte is largely ideal, with Gilfrey's menace a perfect counterpoint to the callow bravado of Shrader and Sly as the two young men who ill-advisedly accept his challenge. Persson and Constantinescu pair up perfectly, each one prompting the other to take the brazen step toward romantic adventure that they don't want to be the first to take themselves and then later lamenting, but not denying, the adventure's unwanted effect on their own passions.

Constantinescu herself played the role of Despina in the LA Opera Così a couple years ago, a part originally conceived as a sassy young servant girl who goads her mistresses into their romantic experimentation. As played here by Rosemary Joshua, the character is older and more jaded, Don Alfonso's counterpart more than his hired accomplice.

There's certainly no shortage of arias in Così fan tutte, and just about all of them here are rendered charismatically and beautifully. A short, unexpected second act cameo performance by an additional singer uncredited in the program also provides one of the production's most memorable moments.

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Dudamel's conducting is alternately brisk and sensuous as the opera's dramatic and comic turns dictate, and his enjoyment of the proceedings is evident throughout. He and Alden even throw in a few musical references to the two preceding operas in the Mozart-Da Ponte cycle, as when one of the characters starts whistling a few bars of "Non piu andrai" from Figaro or another takes a swig from a flask while the orchestra plays a snippet from Don Giovanni's drinking song, "Finch'han dal vino." At one point, hen Don Alfonso steps up next to Dudamel, they even throw in a quick bit of Papageno's aria from The Magic Flute.

One could quibble here or there with a couple of over-forced attempts at gestural humor or, frankly, the downright weird costumes that the four romantic leads sport at the end of the opera. But these are indeed quibbles. What's really unfortunate is that after this weekend, the Philharmonic will be out of the opera company no more. Though we can hope they take up the mantle again some time soon.

The LA Philharmonic's Così fan tutte production plays tomorrow night at 7 and Saturday afternoon at 2. Tickets available at the Disney Hall box office and online.